By Rahim Thawer
Being both Muslim and queer always seemed like mutually exclusive identities to me. The ideological clash meant I simply could not be both. This wasn’t a satisfying way of looking at the world – I didn’t think I should have to repent for being a certain way. I began asking some big questions in high school and then really started to assert my own identity after moving away to university – somehow the academic space away from my family just allowed for it. It was a scary time of grappling with mixed messages and internalized fear and stigma.
In high school, I looked for answers within the cultural/religious framework that was familiar to me – prayer and deciphering texts. By my second year of university, I was distancing myself from my faith community. I was active socially, but lived in emotional isolation. I experienced constant fear around who might find out what about me, which undoubtedly had to do with internalized homophobia and a strong sense of guilt at leaving my close-knit Ismaili Muslim community. Guilt and shame are very deep seeded things. They come from the external world and make us hate ourselves for not being able to live out a certain image of normative life.
SILENCE is the theme in this photograph. It depicts this time in my life when I felt stifled, without role models to reflect my identity/experience back at me to say “you’re normal” or “you’ll be okay”. Instead, I wanted to change who I was. Thanks to all that internalized whatever (guilt, fear, shame, stigma), the silence began to come from within and external validation wasn’t helpful.
Following a year or two of depressive episodes, I began seeking more sanctuary in academia and discovering queer spaces. My queer self began to be normalized, empowered, and more vocal. I found an actual voice.
My experience of oppression around sexuality seems to supersede that of feeling marginalized for being Muslim (though I can easily identify Islamophobia and racism all around me). I have at times put distance between myself and the label “Muslim” because admittedly, it makes me anxious at times. But so does “atheist”–they each come with so much baggage. Perhaps reconciling identity is a life long process; it’s certainly very involved and at any time can tap into social, emotional, and familial triggers.
I’ve settled on identifying with my Muslim identity on a cultural and political level (given my North American context). Being queer has become more than same-sex attraction and taken on a politic of recognizing intersectional identities. I’m not interested in erasing or forgetting all of the positive things that came out of my cultural community either. I interact with my faith community on a cultural and ritualistic level.
I don’t have to conform to one way of being anything, either queer or Muslim. And that’s ok, because I say so.
Rahim Thawer is a Toronto-based community organizer, HIV/AIDS & queer activist, and social worker. You can find him on twitter at @RahimThawer. Very many thanks to Yalda Pashai for permission to use her stunning photograph.